Interview with Kathleen Hanna on the Strength it Takes to Get On Stage

Kathleen Hanna, with her arm raised, singing at the front of her band

The Julie Ruin on stage at the Time Based Arts festival in Portland on September 12. (photo by Mark Levine) 

The Julie Ruin just about burned down the stage at Portland's Time Based Arts festival last Thursday night. The group kicked off the contemporary arts festival as part of a national tour to celebrate their album Run Fast and as frontwoman Kathleen Hanna launched into their raucous playlist, the room suddenly felt hot, sweaty, and electric. 

It's a big deal for Hanna to be on stage at all. The singer who brought seemingly boundless energy to Bikini Kill and Le Tigre has spent the last six years dealing with the effects of Lyme Disease, which hinders both physical and neurological abilities. When we spoke in early September, Hanna talked about living with an invisible disease, how vulnerability can create true confidence, and how the best thing that ever happened to riot grrrl is critique. 

SARAH MIRK: I'll start with an easy question. You have a new album coming out—can you tell us about the album and what your favorite song is off of it?  

KATHLEEN HANNA: Ooo, my favorite song? No one's asked me that before. I really like the song “Goodnight, Goodbye” because it's really pretty and it's really fun to sing, but also because I feel like I said exactly what I wanted to say. I let myself be really vulnerable and personal. I always feel like I'm not allowed to talk about—you know, not private stuff, but in that song I talk what what it was like to be a band in the nineties and what it's like to look back at myself when I was in my twenties. Would I hate myself now? Like, how long can you keep that punk rock sneer going for before you end up sneering at yourself? 

That's interesting, because a lot of musicians and public figures feel like they have to constantly be shaping their persona. So to look back on yourself and say, “I don't like the way I was,” that's interesting. What does the song say about that exactly? 

I don't know if it comes across to anyone else, but I have a line in the first verse that's, “I wielded confidence like it's a shiny knife.” That was about how I feel like a lot of times the least confident people can exude the most anger and confidence, because we're so afraid. We have such a soft core that we have to have a hard shell. I feel like the people who are the most confident are able to be the most vulnerable. I feel like in my twenties, a lot of people were like, “She's so confident, she's such a strong feminist!” But that wasn't how I actually felt. I felt really freaked out and unsure of myself. And I'm sure that made for great shows, because it was like I was falling apart in front of peoples' faces. But, you know, looking back on it, I'm able to admit that I wasn't the strong feminist that people thought I was. I was very, very different in my personal life than I was on stage or in my records. 

I'm sure a lot of people would connect with that idea that many people who are insecure use false confidence and performing as a shield. How has your relationship to confidence changed as you've gotten older? Do you feel more confident now?

I feel like I can walk on stage and be myself and be totally happy with that. Le Tigre is really interesting to me, where we had the artifice of a Las Vegas performance. We had matching costumes and dancing and video behind us and having that as a protective barrier—and having management, which I'd never had before—was this way to be like, “I need my own space.” I need to hide behind this Vegas-y, artificial show, but by having that barrier, I was able to be more vulnerable. And now I don't even need that. I can just do what I'm going to do and, you know, it's not all up to me. Audiences create shows just as much as performers do. I can't always predict whether it's going to be a good show or a bad show. I think being older made me really come into touch with the fact that I can't control every situation the way I'd like to. That's a really freeing feeling, to not be trying to control everything. Now who I am on stage and who I am at home is more similar. I hope that doesn't come off as boring to people, because I can be pretty boring at home. 

The three members of Le Tigre in funny bright dresses

JD Samson, Kathleen Hanna, and Johanna Fateman sporting typical outfits in Le Tigre.

Well, I bet it will come off as honest to people. I think one reason people like you so much as an artist is they feel like what you're doing is really sincere, really real, and that the person you are on stage is the person you are in real life. So what's changed? How have you gotten to this point where those two selves are more in sync? 

I aged. I also got very, very sick. The learning curve was pretty quick. I had to really change the way I was living, change my stress level, and change how much I was willing to do for people. Once I started being, like, “I have to actually take care of my health or things could go remarkably wrong,” my health became my full-time job. It was hard for me to stay on top of that and not do favors for people. I was still, on email, acting like I was completely well: networking, helping people, making videos for Pussy Riot, and now I look back on that and say, “Oh my God, you can tell I was really sick.” I think my illness brought me to a place where I just had to become as honest in real life as I have sometimes been able to be in a song. I felt like I was more myself, this one core part of who I am was really only there when I was on stage. Now that part of myself that I really like is around a lot more.  

If readers don't know, you were sick with Lyme disease and it took six years to get a diagnosis. I think a lot of people would look at that and think it must have been a part of your life that was only bad. But it sounds like what you're saying is that getting to that point of weakness, that point where you couldn't be strong, has made you more comfortable and honest with yourself. 

Yeah, you've got to be pretty serious about what you want out of life when you don't know what's going to happen the next day. Some days, brushing my teeth was like, “When's the applause track going to happen?” I was like, I wish there was an audience standing here watching me make it to the bathroom on two legs. I felt like I'd just run a marathon. I was like, “I'm amazing!” There were times when I couldn't say three sentences without slurring or saying the wrong words. So to be able to now do an interview with you and sounding, I hope, semi-coherent, and to be in the position where I've played a couple shows, it's like I've been given my life back. How could I not have changed? It made me realize what a fuckin' dick I was before. Not in every way of my life, but I didn't understand what people with invisible illnesses go through every day. Just because somebody doesn't have a cast on their arm doesn't mean that they are not dealing with serious illness. Invisible illness is especially insidious because people are like, “You look great.” Before I got diagnosed, I was trying all these weird diets to see if I was allergic to something or if I had Crohn's disease and I lost a huge amount of weight. Everyone was telling me how great I looked. I remember one day somebody telling me that I was like, “You know what, I'm so skinny because I'm really, really sick, not because I want to be.” They just turned and walked away. I know weight plays such a huge factor in the way people relate to women, but that really showed me. How many people told me how good I looked when I was emaciated? I was like, “Wow.” 

That's scary. 

It is scary. And there are a lot of people who are super fucking happy when they're allowed to keep weight on their bodies. It's really frustrating to hear about people trying to lose ten pounds when you're like, “I wish I could just gain ten pounds!” 

Do you feel like this whole experience has changed your music? Does the new album reflect the experiences you've gone through?

I have late-stage Lyme disease and I have neurological Lyme disease, which affects my brain. While recording this record, I was undergoing this really intensive treatment and when you're under treatment for Lyme, a lot of the worst parts of your symptoms come out. So when I was talking, I would say the wrong word for the wrong thing. I would say, like, “cotton ball” when I meant “close the curtains.” Totally fucking random stuff. When I was on the record, I would just sing random stuff. And then I realized how beautiful some of those slip-ups were, how interesting some of the wrong choices I made became. Like we wrote a song called “Girls Like Us” and I just singing all the wrong words—I was repeating lines in a random order and stuff wasn't making sense. And then I wrote the chorus and realized it was about how there is no “girls like us.” There is no unifying force. There's all these abstract random things and there's all these concrete things about privilege. We're all different. We can't have this thing that's like, “Every girl's a riot grrrl”—do you know what I mean? We can't have one kind of feminism. It became kind of a joke on that idea. I get asked about riot grrrl a lot as if it's a universal thing that everyone agreed on and everyone called themselves a riot grrrl. And you know that's bullshit. But it's interesting that this nineties nostalgia stuff can flatten everything out to ignore critique and ignore variation. I wrote that song really in the height of my treatment and then realized all these weird words I'm putting together, I'm going to put “girls like us” before 'em, and to admit that there's no unifying force. But it could easily be read, if you're just in the audience, as this kind of clique-y song and I really like that about it, that you misread it and then you have to go deeper.   

It sounds like that lack of critique bothers you. 

I never thought everybody should be a riot grrrl. I wasn't the “every girl is a riot grrrl” type. I never was about telling people what they are. I've never felt like everybody has to identify in the same way, that's ridiculous. That wouldn't be interesting. The strongest thing that ever happened in riot grrrl was critique, was smart critique I should say. 

When you re-listen to your old music, how do you feel about it? Does it make you cringe, hearing yourself when you're so young? 

I'm not embarrassed that we went out on stage being like, “We're a feminist band.” I'm embarrassed by some of the lyrics. Like, “Eat meat, hate blacks, beat your wife, it's all the same thing.” I look back on that and I'm like, “That's embarrassing, they're not all the same thing, how dare I say that?” There are a lot of lyrics that make me cringe. But at the same time, I'm  proud of it. I don't listen to Bikini Kill unless I really have to. Because we have a new record label, I've been listening to some of the old practice tapes, and that's actually really fun for me. Some of the early songs are grungy and dirge-y and some of them are really sad, because I was going through a breakup. 

A young Kathleen Hanna, wearing a plaid skirt and singing

Photo via Bikini Kill Archive

I think it's funny that albums are like time capsules. There are still 19 and 20-year olds discovering Bikini Kill and listening to those songs for the very first time and connecting with them that people connected with them 20 years ago. 

What's interesting is having 16-year-olds come up now and, for them, I'm forever 25. Those records make it like I'm 21, 22,  or whatever. You know, I'm 44 now and I'm in different place. I'm still pissed, but I haven't been out in the streets politically active like I would have liked to be in the past 10 years. I came from, as many, many people do, a really dysfunctional family. With feminist punk rock, I was looking for a new family and I was looking for love. I was looking for love from the audience. In Le Tigre, I had way more of a personal life and I'd worked through a lot of stuff and I felt like I wasn't going onstage because I wanted anyone to give me anything. I was going onstage because I wanted to put on a show. I was worried that not wanting this love or affection from strangers would make my performance less intense, but it was actually really liberating. I didn't need anything from the audience anymore; I got great energy from the audience, but if a show went bad, it didn't mean I was unloved. I feel like I'm at that point now where I don't really go onstage with a persona. I don't look back on what I've done and feel like I have to play a younger version of myself, which is why when people ask me about a Bikini Kill reunion, I think it'd be really difficult to perform a lot of those songs at my age. I'd feel a lot of the expectation. I don't wear my hair in pigtails anymore, I don't wear schoolgirl dresses. I'd feel weird being my grown-up self. Any performer would be hard-pressed not to parody themselves. I really pride myself with trying to be as present as possible on stage.

Maybe, like, every ten years you're just going to form a new band to keep up with who you are. 

Yeah, I don't have to make any of those records again, I already did that. But with any musician, they want you to write Rebel Girl again, they want you to write Deceptacon again. But that's not how it works, you can't sit down and write Deceptacon Part 2.

Every project I've ever done, I've tried to do something new. In this band, everybody really likes playing music and they really like the instruments that they play and they're really good at them. And that's weird. I've always been starting from scratch. And now it's like, “Oh, I've been singing for 25 years and the people I'm with have been playing for 25 years.”  I've never been like, “I want to play in a Led Zeppelin-style band.” I've never been like, “I want a guitar solo.” But we have guitar solos on this record and I love them, they're sexy and dance-y and cool. Why is that off limits? And in Le Tigre, it was like, why are costumes off limits? Why is that not punk and something only big bands can do?

What was the process of making this album like?  

It was almost entirely collaborative.  At the beginning it was learning songs off my solo album, but even that was collaborative because we changed a lot to make it funner. Everyone put in their two cents. At the beginning when we started writing new songs, it would happen because everyone was goofing around. I'd go to the bathroom and come back and they'd have written all this music. We'd record it on our iPhones and I'd go home and try to sing along to it and see what happens. They each brought their own specific creativity to it.

Since you couldn't perform for a while, how has it been getting back on stage? Are you nervous about your health as you head out on tour? 

I definitely lost my confidence as a performance and a singer, but I've gone through that lots of times. I still don't know if I'm going to make it through a show. But in a way, I've always had that. In a way, so does every singer who sings athletically. I try to remind myself that I can't control anything and I can only do what I can do. But as a person, I'm excited to be onstage again and I'm like, “Oh my God, I can do this!” I remember thinking, like, “I'm never going to be able to play show again” and not being able to think about it because it was too painful. Being onstage and having my friends there, I get so emotional, I have to keep my shit together.

Here's The Julie Ruin playing “Oh Come On” off their new album. 

For more Bitch writing on riot grrrl, check out Laina Dawes' piece “Why I Was Never a Riot Grrrl” and an interview with Mimi Thi Nguyen in the Micro/Macro print issue.  

Thanks to Caitlin Wood for brainstorming before this interview. 

This article was published in Food Issue #61 | Winter 2014
by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is the former host of Bitch Media’s podcast Popaganda. She’s interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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